Edmonton·Video

Alberta chefs and farmers work together as restaurant industry embraces local

When it came to embracing the local food movement, the owners of Edmonton’s RGE RD restaurant went all in, developing relationships with local producers before opening the doors to their establishment.

Some restaurants fully commit to local ingredients, others find it too restrictive

Caitlin Fulton and Blair Lebsack go over the menu for one of their farm dinners, where guests share a meal prepared entirely with ingredients from that farm. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Homegrown is a series that looks at how Alberta's local movement is changing buying habits, connecting people, and shaping communities. Share your story ideas with the Homegrown team by writing to  josee.st-onge@cbc.ca 

When it came to embracing the local food movement, the owners of Edmonton's RGE RD restaurant went all in. 

Restaurant manager Caitlin Fulton and chef Blair Lebsack spent years developing relationships with local producers before opening the doors to their establishment. 

"The community came first, then the restaurant," said Fulton. "The restaurant has allowed us to maintain and grow that community."

Being fully committed to local ingredients meant shedding preconceived notions of how a restaurant should run, said Lebsack. 

"What it did was allow us to really show our commitment to using local food and let the farmers know that we're here for the long haul," said Lebsack. 

The RGE RD restaurant is an homage to Edmonton's local farmers, where sustainability is key. 2:28

The shift toward locally sourced food has been a trend in the restaurant industry for more than a decade, according to Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurants Canada's vice-president for the western provinces. 

"It's captured the imagination of not only the chefs, but certainly our customers and millennials in particular, who are really concerned about where their food comes from," von Schellwitz said.

But sourcing only local food isn't realistic for many restaurateurs.

About half of the ingredients used by chef Kunal Sawhney at Edmonton's Revel Bistro and Bar are from Alberta. About three-quarters of his ingredients are from Canada.

Chef Kunal Sawhney (centre) chats with his staff in the dining room of Revel Bistro and Bar in Edmonton. (Steven Broadhead)

The higher cost of local food can be prohibitive, said Sawhney, who wants to keep his prices affordable for the average Edmontonian.

"Sometimes people are just looking for value on the plate, that's what makes it difficult," said Sawhney. 

All about relationships

For RGE RD to be able offer local fare year-round, Fulton and Lebsack have partnered with farmers who supply them directly.

"We have a great collaboration with them, so if we ask them to try something, they're willing to do it," he said.

Producers will raise certain animals or grow different vegetables specifically for the restaurant.

"You have to be talking to them and see their farm, and what they might do for you, and then things like that just evolve," said Lebsack.

Partnerships between chefs and farmers are becoming more commonplace across Canada, said von Schellwitz.

"We've seen chefs banding together and working with farmers, saying, 'If you change your crop from what you were doing before to what we're using, we will guarantee you that we will buy your product,'" he said. 

Fulton and Lebsack's popular farm dinners, where guests share a meal prepared on a farm with ingredients grown onsite, exemplify the closeness of those ties.

"Once you have the experience of seeing the farm and meeting the farmers, I think you come away from those dinners with a new understanding," said Fulton. "Nothing compares to that experience."

Chef Blair Lebsack prepares ingredients in the kitchen of RGE RD, located in Edmonton. (David Bajer/CBC)

Boost to local economy 

While sourcing local isn't Sawhney's top priority, the chef makes a point of supporting local producers whenever he can.

"I do like to support local business, since myself, I am a local business," he said. "I find it really important to help each other."

Buying local beer, spirits and wine for their establishments is another way restaurateurs inject money into the economy, said Fulton.

"We can continue to support other small businesses and help them grow," she said. "There's definitely a circular aspect to this."

Caitlin Fulton features many wines from British Columbia's Okanagan region on RGE RD's menu. (David Bajer/CBC)

Encouraging sustainability through their purchasing choices is another priority at RGE RD. 

"There's also the human aspect of connecting to the people who produce this food, supporting the local economy, and seeing the results of where our dollars go and what impact that has," said Fulton. 

Adapting to the seasons 

Mother Nature dictates the menu at RGE RD, forcing Lebsack to be creative.

Some of the menu items change on a daily basis. Other dishes are offered for a season.

"Around here seasons are a lot different than what people think of seasons," said Lebsack. "It's not spring, fall or winter. It's the season of that vegetable."

Sawhney usually changes his menu monthly, keeping in mind the accessibility of certain produce. 

"It can make it difficult, putting something on the menu, and then the next week it's just not available," he explained. 

Different approaches to using local ingredients are good for Edmonton's culinary scene, said Sawhney.

"We need to be able to offer something for everyone."

Chef Kunal Sawhney prepares a plate of braised short ribs using only local ingredients. (Steven Broadhead)

About the Author

Josee St-Onge

Journalist

Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca